The recorded history of the Scottish dance tune, ‘Tullochgorum,’ can be traced back to 1734 and its first appearance in music notation in the Duke of Perth MS. Of unknown authorship, the tune is believed to have originated on the bagpipes on account of it being in the mixolydian mode, but it is now considered to be among the core repertoire of Scottish fiddle music. Francis Collinson has postulated the existence of an earlier example of the tune in the Rowallan Lute MS of c. 1620 under the title, ‘Ouir the Deck Davy,’ but while the tune bears resemblance to that now known as ‘Tullochgorum,’ the earliest known example to combine tune and title remains the Duke of Perth MS. It was first published in print in 1757 by music publisher, Robert Bremner, and since that time has been included in at least thirty-eight other printed collections. Examples of the tune also exist as audio recordings, the earliest of which is a performance by James Scott Skinner from 1905. It is exceptional that there should be so many examples of an individual tune, but the tune itself was made exceptional when emotionally powerful lyrics were written to it.
While the origins of the tune, ‘Tullochgorum,’ are unclear, it is likely that it originated in the Highlands of Scotland on account of it being in the mixolydian [bagpipe] mode and having a Gaelic title. The tune assumed an especially high cultural value when the Reverend John Skinner wrote Scots lyrics to it (c. 1760). The lyrics combine Highland Scottish, Lowland Scottish, and British identities with a message of unification – reference to a ‘Highland taste’ in a song written in Lowland Scots rather than Gaelic highlights an interface between the two cultures, and while there is no explicit reference to British identity, the lack of antagonism towards England arguably implies an, at least latent, accord. At the same time, the lyrics criticise ‘foreign’ influences, whether musical, as in ‘dull Italian lays’, or political, as in ‘the ills that come frae France’. Skinner’s position as an Episcopalian minister and an influential figure within the Scottish Episcopal Church is one possible explanation of the fervent nationalism evoked in the song: his decision to convert from Church of Scotland to Scottish Episcopal Church and worship according to the liturgy of the Church of England was undoubtedly a very significant decision and one which must have shaped his own sense of identity. The fact that the song went on to become so popular may be explained both by the public’s familiarity with the tune and by their ability to relate to the words in a climate of cultural nationalism. A reference to the tune by name in an 1809 biographical account of the famous eighteenth-century fiddler, Niel Gow (the only tune to be referred to by name in the whole article), demonstrates its centrality to Scottish fiddle music and, by the fact that the biographical account was published in the widely circulated Scots Magazine, Scottish culture in general.
The English translation of the Scottish Gaelic word, tullochgorum, or tulach gorm, is made problematic by the labelling of colours in Gaelic. While tulach is unproblematically translatable as hill, gorm is translated as a colour depending on the context of its use:
Unlike most European languages, where [colours] are based on the colours of the rainbow, in Gaelic they are based on natural colours, hence ‘gorm’ is usually translated as ‘blue’, but can also be green, because grass is ‘gorm'[.] http://www.unilang.org/view.php?res=5
Thus, translations of the title as ‘Blue Hill’ or ‘Blue-Green Hill’, which have been posited as acceptable translations in some examples of the tune, is misleading.
Rev. William Reid provides the following explanation of the title, but its authority is compromised by the romantic and sentimental imagery of the plot and the lack of evidence cited:
[O]nly a few miles from Grantown is situated Tullochgorum, the scene of the bloody tragedy which inspired the reel of the same name. … [H]ere is to be found the farm-house of Tullochgorum. … Two hundred years ago among the suitors for the hand of the Laird’s daughter, Isabel, was one of the lawless clan Macgregor, but her friends gave the preference to a gentleman of the Robertson clan, who resolved on the destruction of his rival. Accordingly, accompanied by a small party, he came suddenly upon him, but Macgregor was more than a match for his assailants. Having escaped to a barn he made a gallant use of his claymore, striking down successively those who dared to enter, and aided by Isabel, who loaded for him a musket, he succeeded in destroying the whole band, among whom was her brother, who had acted a treacherous part on the occasion. It was in the moment of exultation consequent in such a victory that he composed and danced the famous reel of Tullochgorum.
Ronnie Gibson (8th March 2013)